Encountering the Mandylion Icon of Christ

by V.K. McCarty | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

Icon of Christ

“The indescribable glory of His face was changing through grace”—Menaion for August.

Since the feast-day of the Mandylion Ikon of Christ, memories of encountering it have been galvanizing my prayer, recalling an extraordinary encounter meeting it on pilgrimage many years ago. The Mandylion Icon “Not Made by Hands” occupies a central place among Orthodox images of Christ, although its origins are shrouded in mystery. The Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 787 gave attention to it, and to commemorate the triumph of the holy images, it is this icon of Christ which is venerated at the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The expression “not made by hands” derives its meaning from its Gospel context: “We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made by hands” (Mark 14:58). The term acheiropoietos in the Greek and spas nerokotvornyi in the Russian describes icons carrying the heritage of being created not by the mere agency of icon-painters, but by the tradition of direct impression of Our Lord’s body; they claim to derive from the first example and thus be genuine and pleasing to God.

The Mandylion Icon of Christ is displayed in a prominent place in the church, censed during the Liturgy, and often carried in procession. It is traditionally seen over doorways and gateways; and it is also often present, symbolizing Christ’s invisible presence, when the penitent and priest stand together in the church for the Sacrament of Repentance. Witnessing this icon for the first time was a jolting experience for me, at once unsettling and yet startlingly infused with love. One evening, during a memorable Russian pilgrimage, as we made the rounds of several Vespers services, we were joined by a Russian Orthodox nun, Sr. Galina. Even with no shared language, we became fast friends because we are both red-headed. Trailing behind her, I learned to circumnavigate the church and venerate the icons.

At our last stop, at the Cathedral of St. Nicholas, again I followed along with Sr. Galina as she made her prostrations: she crossed herself several times, knelt down and kissed the floor in front of the little staircase, then climbed the stairs to kiss the icon and pray before the saint. With the heated blaze of candlelight on my cheeks, I too venerated and prayed before each saint; thus, proskenesis and aspasmos (reverential bowing and kissing) became intimately tied up with my own experience of the holy icons.

As we were leaving, Sr. Galina indicated another icon we simply must venerate. It was displayed to the right of the royal doors in a free-standing proskynetarion, with dark brocade skirting arranged at length in front of it like a catafalque. The icon was leaning back at an angle, and as we approached it, I couldn’t actually see which saint was depicted, only that we didn’t have to climb up steps to approach it. After crossing myself and kissing the floor behind Galina, I leaned toward the glass opening and saw at once that I was encountering the face of Christ. In that moment, it was as though I was leaning my head toward an open coffin and Christ was under the glass several inches, right there, very real. He looked tired and dirty. He looked mysterious and provocative. His hair was matted and sweaty. The image was so realistic, so human before me that in the radical intimacy of that moment, he seemed to smell like a homeless man begging me in a rainy doorway. It embarrassed me that this image of the Savior of the world was even repugnant to me, and at the same time utterly mesmerizing. It was difficult to keep moving forward to kiss him; it was almost paralyzing, and my stomach even pulled me away a little in the instant before I made my veneration. The eyes of Christ were open, but they seemed to be swollen with pain and love, and looking down into my heart, not up into my eyes. In that captivating moment, it was astonishing that anyone in such pain could gaze so lovingly at me, and it seemed to be part of the mysterious way in which the glory of the Lord is revealed in the suffering of Jesus.

The face of Christ appeared alive and detached from the drapery surrounding it, taking on a breathing embodied reality of its own. The experience was so compelling and evocative that it claimed for me an authentic impression on all the senses as I kissed him. Thought and feeling were vibrating all at once, and I experienced myself as an unmistakable member of a centuries old procession of pilgrims who in the moment of veneration glimpses the actual impression of Our Savior being made for the first time. Before this wondrous spectacle of Christ, I could not form words to pray, and I just stood there bowing, overwhelmed and self-conscious in the profound generosity of his presence. And although I was the one bending down, the impression received was that Christ was bending over me, during my own work of dying, and imprinting the beauty of his face on my eyes, equipping me to face death. It was a primal recognition of the disturbing beauty of the face of Christ.

Of course, I want to discover that this is an image, copied from an image not made by hands, but by Our Lord and Savior himself. Even now, so many years later, I still experience at every turn that somehow I am still seeing Christ in that image with all my senses. As contemporary Orthodox, we discover that legends at times have built up to explain and authenticate images which have come to exist, rather than the other way around. Yet, even understanding that hasn’t stopped me from searching for signs of authority and tradition to explain the compelling sense of being sought out by Christ in that icon, and I am convinced that my experience was not unusual; and that generations of worshippers, perhaps Peter the Great among them, have been connected to the transforming beauty of Jesus Christ through this image.

Throughout the evening and in the days that followed, I asked about the icon. Every Orthodox Russian I spoke with knew immediately which one I had encountered, in part because as it happened, we had visited the icon on its feast-day. No one was surprised in the least at the mystical intensity of my experience, for the Romanov Mandylion Icon of Christ is said to be one of the most revered and powerful objects of veneration in existence today in the Russian Orthodox world. It was “written” for Tsar Alexei I in the seventeenth century by the imperial Russian artist Simon Ushakov (1626-1686) from the Moscow Armory Painters School, and then gifted to Tsar Peter I by his mother. It was said to have been present with Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltava, on his deathbed, and at his funeral. Several Russian people spoke to me about the Romanov Mandylion Icon being wonder-working and did so with an attitude of open acceptance; for Orthodox faith considers icons “to work miracles not as images but as relics…strength passes from the imaged through the image just as healing could pass from the saint through his relic” (G Mathew, Byzantine Aesthetics. NY, 1963, 98).

Icon of Christ

Five years after encountering the Romanov Mandylion icon of Christ on its feast-day, I had the good fortune to return to St. Petersburg and venerate the icon again, this time where it normally resides in the Cathedral of the Transfiguration. Here, it occupies a position of honor along the right side of the iconostasis and is displayed under bright lights, with much of the icon covered by a gleaming gold oklad. It was very different from the first time meeting the Mandylion image without its jeweled frame, when it seemed that Christ was drawing me into the realm of sacrificial love with Him. While I longed to see the entire icon again, everything but the face and hair was now covered; yet even there in harsh lighting, the icon flooded the eye with sensations, for Christ was now crowned in a dense array of radially arranged shards of diamonds and an outer perimeter of golden seraphim wings.

All this jeweled magnificence is a sharp contrast to the face of Christ so realistically rendered as an ungroomed man with swollen heavy-lidded features from my initial encounter. Yet it was easy to ignore all the gem-stoned finery to meet the face of Christ once more. Immediately, I sensed again the presence of Jesus modeling generosity and drawing me to action in the world. There can be no doubt that the icon becomes a conduit of divine response, for grace (charis) is the icon’s active element. Lossky explains that holy icons have within them a unique energy, so that they can express things in themselves invisible; thus, the icon “is a material center in which there reposes an energy, a divine force, which unites itself to human art” (Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 1976,189). For me, this was still a compelling earthly glimpse of Jesus of Nazareth. It can be uncomfortable to contemplate the visage of Christ as unattractive; for example, as interpreted in Scripture in the Servant Songs (eg., Is. 52:14); yet, Origen has pointed out that: “Even if there is just one Jesus, he was multiple in aspect for the spirit, and those who looked at him did not see him in the same way” (Contra Celsum, II.64.).

When I gaze at the icon of Christ, meditating upon it, I enter into a relationship with the one depicted there, who shares with me, as I pray and watch, something of His divine self. He is present in the icon, and perhaps in that moment, I am, too. In praying before Him, Christ offers us a glimpse of the divine order, showing us as we gaze at Him, meeting His eyes, how things in the eyes of God. Meditating before an icon of Christ is a sacred event in which in which we glimpse eternal life; for the icon prepares us life in the presence of God. I continue to marvel at the experience of encountering the Romanov Mandylion, and the sense of Christ offering me a painful flash of His suffering with a glimpse of His profound beauty, and modeling the generous grace necessary for continuing ministry. I was at once repulsed and intoxicated by the image of Jesus who seemed to be quietly breathing before me in anguished silence.

In praying before the Mandylion Icon of Christ, I experience a transcendent dimension and feel united with Jesus; not a Romantic painting of Him, but union with a living being who experienced pleasure and agonized in suffering, breathing on me from the sweat of His suffering, Christ himself, the source of the Spirit. Surely the icon is leading us to Christ as we gaze at it, and in this it is a servant of the holy tradition of the Church, and of the Gospel. A hymn to the Orthodox feast celebrating the Mandylion Icon Not Made by Hands proclaims:

We praise thee, the lover of man, by gazing upon the image of Thy physical form. Through it grant unto Thy servants, O Savior, to enter into Eden without hindrance.

V.K. McCarty is an Anglican theologian who lectures at General Theological Seminary and writes for the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity. Her new book, From Their Lips: Voices of Early Christian Women, is available from Gorgias Press.